Ten years ago, the Morwell community was thrown into the midst of one of the state’s biggest industrial, social and health catastrophes. Tracie Lund, the manager of VCOSS member organisation Morwell Neighbourhood House, reflects on how the disaster changed her community, and herself.
“I always thought someone should do something about that, then I realised I am someone.”
Today marks ten years since the Morwell Mine Fire. It’s hard to believe a decade has gone by already.
Initially downplayed, it unfolded into a 45-day industrial disaster, raining toxic smoke and ash on our vulnerable community.
The aftermath led to two government inquiries, the establishment of a Health Innovation Zone, a long term Health Study, the appointment of a Latrobe Health Advocate, and years later, a $2 million Supreme Court fine for what turned into one of Australia’s worst air quality disasters.
The government’s problematic response was blamed on lack of ‘triggers’ and ‘data,’ as only two air monitors were in place, both turned off at the time. Highlighting how extremely unprepared everyone was. It was days into the event before monitors were switched on, and air quality data began to be collected.
Adding insult to injury, our community was divided with the invention of ‘Morwell South’ and finally, we were issued masks and buckets and tasked with the clean up.
The Morwell Mine Fire reshaped emergency response protocols, exposing the pitfalls of confusing messaging for the epic failure they were. The directive, ‘Don’t breathe the air,’ still haunts me and served to put a focus on the need for urgent response and reform for messaging to community during emergencies. The absence of smoke protocols and triggers left us exposed to dense, toxic smoke without protective measures for our community and our health. Thankfully, this is another area of change that communities across the state now benefit from.
Beyond the immediate health concerns we were experiencing, there was a clear indifference from the government of the day and responsible stakeholders to understanding the long-term health impacts.
A GetUp campaign video from April 2014
I saw the pushback unfold regularly during the weekly community information sessions that we held at Morwell Neighbourhood House.
With my young children breathing in toxins and first hand exposure to cryptic and inconsistent messaging from stakeholders, the fear of not knowing ‘what was in the smoke’ became a driving force that pushed me into action.
I put myself on the front line to support a combined community response. Changes needed to be made, and it was clear that the community needed to activate to make it happen.
I started a petition for a health study that gained 25,000 signatures, which I presented to Rosemary Lester, the Chief Health Officer at the time.
To the outside, I’m sure it looked like I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. I was constantly plagued by imposter syndrome.
I saw myself as a ‘housewife’, a ‘working mum’, and I felt I was hopelessly unqualified to raise concerns in any fashion on any issue. Let alone an unfolding industrial disaster. I was also naive, and I quickly learned the inevitable criticism that comes to those who to dare speak up is not only real, it is fiercely gendered and often vicious.
I didn’t actually believe that to be the case until I experienced it myself. I can tell you it’s bought me to my knees as I was not prepared for it at all.
This leads me to the importance of champions and people who believe in you when you don’t or can’t believe in your own worth. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had the ugly underbelly of public life matched with some incredible support from people who have offered strategic advice, moral support, and sometimes chocolate to pull me through.
I’ve given a brief reflection on the impact the Morwell Mine Fire had on me. It changed my life forever.
I didn’t choose to become an advocate for change and a voice for the voiceless. The circumstances chose me. It changed many lives.
I’m mindful of the many people who have fought hard for socially just responses for our community, those who have shared their stories, and those who have been traumatised and remain silent. Healing looks different for each of us, and I deeply respect the individual journey we are all on.
The story of the Mine Fire is a powerful story of resilience and triumph in the face of extraordinary adversity.
The fierce push back from unlikely voices helped channel community strength to respond to the immediate danger we faced.
The fallout transformed our community and had broad implications for the state.
Given all that we’ve been through, it’s crucial that we stay connected, continuing to foster conversations and building relationships with one another. Strong social cohesion is more important now than ever.
In the coming weeks, there will be a renewed focus on Morwell and the Mine Fire. With opportunities for reflection, discussion, and the sharing of stories.
We will all benefit from allowing space for respectful sharing and moments of quiet reflection as needed.
This article first appeared on Facebook. It is reproduced with permission.
VCOSS is the peak body for Victoria’s social and community sector, and the state’s premier social advocacy body.
We work towards a Victoria free from poverty and disadvantage, where every person and community experiences genuine wellbeing.
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